Defense Department reviewing screening of foreign students after Saudi national kills 3 people at Pensacola naval base

PENSACOLA, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 06: A general view of the atmosphere at the Pensacola Naval Air Station following a shooting on December 06, 2019 in Pensacola, Florida. The second shooting on a U.S. Naval Base in a week has left three dead plus the suspect and seven people wounded. (Photo by Josh Brasted/Getty Images)

The Defense Department will review measures for screening foreign students after a deadly shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida on Friday.

The gunman was a second lieutenant in the Saudi Arabian military involved in flight training at the station, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Friday. Three people were killed in the shooting and eight others were injured and taken to a hospital, authorities said.

Officials are looking into whether the shooting was terror-related as a possible motive, but it’s still early in the investigation.

“I also talked about our team looking at the measures we have in place to ensure proper vetting and screening of foreign students as they come to our country to make sure we understand we have a good handle on who they are and that they’ve been properly screened,” Esper said Friday night.

Two law enforcement sources told CNN the shooter, who was killed, has been identified as Saudi Arabian national Mohammed Alshamrani.

The gunman started his training in August 2017 as part of a three-year program. He was taking classes in basic aviation, initial pilot training and English, according to a spokesperson for the assistant to the Secretary of Defense.

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Family members identified one of the victims as Joshua Kaleb Watson and praised him as a hero.

“After being shot multiple times he made it outside and told the first response team where the shooter was and those details were invaluable,” Adam Watson wrote about his brother on Facebook. “He died a hero and we are beyond proud but there is a hole in our hearts that can never be filled.”

Authorities have not released victims’ names or discussed what victims told them at the scene.

Joshua Watson was from Enterprise, Alabama. In a statement obtained by CNN affiliate WDHN, Mayor Bill Cooper said, “The Enterprise community suffered a tremendous blow Friday upon hearing of the death of one of our own, Joshua Watson…I am proud of him for his service and dedication to his country.”

Saad bin Hantim Alshamrani, an uncle of the shooting suspect, told CNN from Saudi Arabia that his nephew had done “nothing suspicious” before moving to the US.

He said his nephew was 21 and “likable and mannered towards his family and the community.” He added that his nephew “has his religion, his prayer, his honesty and commitments” and that he was a “likable kid, smart, he was exceptionally smart.”

The elder Alshamrani said his country needs to “get to the truth” and that if his nephew was guilty, then he will be “accountable before God.”

Foreign students have long trained at the base

Naval Air Station Pensacola employs more than 16,000 military and 7,400 civilian personnel, according to the base’s website. Many families also live there, said retired Rear Adm. John Kirby, CNN’s military and diplomatic analyst, who was once stationed there.

Foreign students from “partner nations” have trained at the base to learn naval aviation for years, Commanding Officer of NAS Pensacola Capt. Tim Kinsella told reporters.

“There’s always been international students training here because it’s a good place to train, it’s good quality training,” he said. He roughly estimated that there were a couple hundred foreign students at the base.

At a news conference, Gov. Ron DeSantis mentioned the connection to the Saudi Air Force and said that he had spoken to President Donald Trump about it.

“There’s obviously going to be a lot of questions about this individual being a foreign national, being a part of the Saudi Air Force and then to be here training on our soil,” he said.

“Obviously,” DeSantis added, “the government of Saudi Arabia needs to make things better for these victims.”

Saudi King Salman Abdulaziz Al-Saud expressed “deep sadness and sorrow” in the call, state-run SPA news reported. The king told the President that he ordered Saudi services to cooperate with the investigation, according to SPA.

Trump said on Twitter he has spoken with the King of Saudi Arabia about the shooting.

“The King said that the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter, and that this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people who love the American people,” the president said.

Asked whether the shooting would affect the US-Saudi military-to-military relationship, Esper said, “I don’t see this undermining the deeper relationship we’ve had with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for decades.”

Two deputies were wounded in confrontation

Authorities first received a call about an active shooter at NAS Pensacola around 6:51 a.m. Friday, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan told reporters. The shooting occurred in a classroom building, Kinsella said.

The shooter used a handgun and was killed after two deputies exchanged gunfire with him. The deputies who confronted the shooter also suffered gunshot wounds — one in the arm and one in the knee. Both are expected to survive.

Three people were killed and eight others were injured, FBI Jacksonville said on Twitter.

Walking through the scene “was like being on the set of a movie,” Morgan said.

“This doesn’t happen in Escambia County. It doesn’t happen in Pensacola. It doesn’t happen to our friends and neighbors who are members of the US Navy,” Morgan said. “But it did, and it has.”

The shooting comes just two days after an active duty US sailor, Gabriel Romero, killed two civilian employees and injured another before killing himself at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in Hawaii. Investigators have not announced a motive for the Wednesday shooting.

The FBI is investigating

The FBI has taken over the Pensacola investigation, according to an FBI spokeswoman.

The investigation is global in scope, a law enforcement source told CNN, with agents posted in Riyadh tasked with liaising with the Saudi government to obtain background information about the shooter.

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan told CNN’s Erin Burnett that the FBI had secured the areas on base where the shooter was staying and they had recovered his laptop and cell phone.

In a tweet early Saturday morning, FBI Jacksonville offered a statement from Special Agent in Charge Rachel Rojas expressing condolences to the families of the victims of Friday’s shooting.

“On behalf of the entire #FBI, I offer our condolences to the families of the innocent victims taken from us, and our support to the entire community. We live here with you, and you have my commitment that will give our all to this investigation,” Rojas said.

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